Cairns, Australia | Atherton Tablelands | Bibinda Boulders

australia travel guide: the atherton tablelands in cairns

When I was researching for our trip to Australia, most travel guides indicated that summertime (December through February) was the best time to visit. It just so happened that late December into early January worked best with our schedules, so I didn’t give it a second thought. What no travel guides said was that summertime, at least in Cairns, is also their rainy season. And oh, in those terms, at least, Cairns did not disappoint. It rained, consistently, constantly, for the three days we were in Cairns.

When I first planned our trip, we had an early morning flight into Cairns on Christmas Eve, with a midmorning excursion to Green Island to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef, and on Christmas Day, we were supposed to take an excursion to the Atherton Tablelands. I was surprised that the excursion was running on Christmas Day, but I wasn’t about to question it, though maybe I should have. When I reached out to them about a month beforehand to confirm a pickup location, they informed me that the excursion had been canceled, which annoyed me for a couple of reasons: 1) Why even offer an excursion on Christmas Day if you’re not actually offering it?, and 2) I shouldn’t have had to contact them; they should have contacted me to let me know. But that’s neither here nor there.

The last-minute cancellation forced me to reconfigure our plans for that stop. There were excursions offered to Fitzroy Island on Christmas Day instead, and since our Airbnb host said he preferred Fitzroy over Green Island, it was an easy swap. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so easy to swap days for our Atherton Tablelands excursion—there were no other Atherton Tablelands excursions offered on Christmas Day, and there were none offered on Christmas Eve with start times that would work with our flight times—so I decided that, instead, we would rent a car and explore the Atherton Tablelands on our own. It was a little nerve-wracking thinking about (my husband) driving on the opposite side of the road, but it seemed like the best way to still see what we wanted to see. I used the itinerary from the excursion that was canceled and plotted the points on a Google map, making an imperfect loop.

We landed in Cairns at about 9:30 am, the sky grey, the clouds thick, precipitation spritzing as we made our way down the stairs and to the jetway. Almost as soon as we had settled behind the wheel of our rental (by the way, foreigners need an international drivers license in order to drive in Australia, and, side note: it’s super weird to be in the passenger seat on the left), the heavens opened up and unleashed a torrent of rain. It was awkward at first, driving on the left side of the road, and the rain certainly didn’t help, but the hubby adjusted pretty quickly; he only went the wrong way once!

It had been raining for days at this point, so the waterfalls (which were to be the highlight of the excursion) were positively raging. We could hear the rushing water long before we caught sight of the rushing water. The mist at the top of the waterfall was so thick we couldn’t actually see the top, particularly at Josephine Falls. We ran into a couple of locals there, bright-eyed with awe, who said they’d never seen the waterfalls like that. Normally, the water was calm enough that people could swim there, but there was no way we were getting in that day. Normally, the waterfalls were graceful and clear, but the rain had rustled up the red-toned earth, making the water a rusty brown instead. It wasn’t quite the magical experience I had been expecting based on photos, but it was still rather thrilling. There’s something exhilarating about seeing how powerful (and dangerous) nature can be.

Of the eight plotted points, we only made it to three that day, largely because the rain was insane: Babinda Boulders, Josephine Falls, and Millaa Milla Falls. I was proud of us for venturing out into the squally, sideways-falling sheets of rain—I was proud of us for making the best out of a less-than-stellar situation—but there was only so much being out in the elements that I could take. After three stops, I was exhausted and ready to head back to the airport to drop off our rental. When we go back to Cairns, we would probably opt to do the excursion we originally planned to, just to maximize what we could see within a day.

We stayed in an Airbnb with a view of the marina; on a sunny day, it would have been a stunning view. It was also less than five minutes’ walk to the Esplanade, about a thousand different restaurant options, and the Cairns Night Markets, which had a ton of ridiculous tchotchkes and souvenirs (including a surprising amount of things made out of kangaroo scrotums—no joke). After a yummy dinner at La Pizza, we were somewhat delirious and definitely slaphappy and amused ourselves with all of the random objects in the Night Markets before we fell, exhausted, into bed.

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Cairns, Australia Travel Guide | The Atherton Tablelands: Babinda Boulders, Josephine Falls, and Millaa Millaa Falls
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